Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ashes to Ashes

...and dust to dust.... Most of you would be able to finish this line. Usually there is a little poem that I read on a bathroom wall which pops into my head. It tells what would happen to male appendages if there were no women.
      Sometimes, to practice my Latin, I read the Vulgate Bible. Last week my eye fell on Genesis 3:1:19 "In sudore vultus tui vesceris pane, donec revertaris in terram de qua sumptus es: quia pulvis es et in pulverem reverteris.""By the sweat on your face you will eat bread, until you return to the earth from which you have been taken: because you are dust and you will return to dust." Indeed Adam means 'man' or 'humankind' but it is said to have derived from adameh, 'earth, dirt' or 'dust'. This fact was used to full effect by Phillip Pullman in his Golden Compass series as 'dust' was a creative and animating force that was draining away from the worlds into Chaos. In theory, we are made of stardust.
     It is times like these that I wish I had stuck to my Ancient Greek studies because I cannot read Greek (or Hebrew). It would be nice to see what the original phrase in the Old Testament had been. Obviously it had been translated into Greek from Hebrew and then into Latin and, often as we have seen in the telephone game, things get lost along the way. However the Hebrew word that has been translated as 'dust' is aphar, which means (from Strong's Hebrew) 'dry loose earth, material of human body, surface of ground, powder of anything pulverized, debris, earth of the grave, mortar, iron ore, material of earth'.
      I suppose many generations of very learned people have seen no reason to change the translation from dust but I have to wonder if 'iron ore' would be better because ore is transformed into the better and more useful iron and iron is such a strong component of our blood. However the choice reflects funerary practices of the time.
      We get 'pulverized' from 'pulvis', which means 'dust' but also specifically 'dust from a destruction (and applied esp. to the remains of a dead body or meton. to a departed spirit)'(Oxford Latin Dictionary). Already in classical Roman times, there was a verb pulvo derived from the noun. Ancient peoples often sprinkled ashes and/or dust over the dead. Antigone was buried alive as punishment for defying her king in sprinkling a handful of dust over her dead brother so that his spirit could depart. Many pre-Christian cultures practiced cremation, hence the ashes, although I suspect cremation occurred primarily where wood was plentiful.
     Most modern English words are derived from French and therefore Latin, as French displaced English as the language of the kings following 1066 a.d., but some few common English words survived and 'dust' is one of them, unchanged by time. 'Dust' it was in the tenth century and 'dust' it is in medieval Icelandic, Old Frisian, Middle High German, according to Bosworth-Toller. 'Pulverized' does sound better for utter destruction than 'having being dusted'.


Anachronist said...

Pie Iesu Domine dona eis but Monty Python always comes to my mind when reading such posts. I wonder why ;p.

It is times like these that I wish I had stuck to my Ancient Greek studies because I cannot read Greek (or Hebrew). It would be nice to see what the original phrase in the Old Testament had been.

There are comparative versions of the Bible with Hebrew/Greek and Latin texts side by side.

The Red Witch said...

Monty Python comes to mind because those guys were smart and funny and one of them was very interested in the Middle Ages.
Maybe I should keep an eye out for one of those but I don't intend to become a biblical scholar. Philology and heroic literature are still my main interests.

Kristin said...

Saying that we're made from stardust isn't a theory, though. It's true. Dying stars that go supernova generate the heavier elements that we're made from, especially carbon. Without that, we wouldn't be here, at least not as carbon-based life forms.

Sorry to get all biochemist on ya, but there you go. :))

The Red Witch said...

That's okay. I like the thought of being made from stardust. It sounds so magical and sparkly.